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Interview with Dr. Richard Petty



Journalist: Timur Begaliyev

Timur Begaliyev: 

Welcome to Sci-Section! My name is Timur Begaliyev, and I'm the journalist for the Sci-Section radio show broadcasted on CMFU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Richard Petty. Dr. Richard Petty is a titan in the field of social psychology, having published over 450 journal articles and winning numerous awards for his research into persuasion. Dr. Petty researches attitudes and attitude change and is best known for co-developing the Elaboration Likelihood Model. Dr. Petty is a professor at Ohio State University. 


Timur Begaliyev:  

What is an attitude, and what are its components? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Attitude, simply stated, is just how we evaluate something. So, “do we like ice cream?” would be a positive attitude. “Do we hate capital punishment?” That would be a negative attitude. So, it is very simple, what are our likes or dislikes, what we think is good, what we think is bad. It is a very general evaluation of something. It's typically thought that an attitude is composed of three different kinds of things. One is our emotions. Do we feel good or bad when we're in the presence of ice cream? What are our beliefs about ice cream? Do we think it's tasty? Do we think it's high in calories? Do we think it's healthy? Those would be our beliefs. The third aspect of attitudes consists of our behaviors toward the object. When we're looking for dessert, do we find that we're always looking for ice cream? And so, we could reflect back on that and go “Well, I must like ice cream because I'm always looking for it when someone asks what dessert I want.” So those are the three components of attitudes. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

What is the significance of understanding an attitude to being those 3 components, and how is that different when we approach attitudes rather than thinking of an attitude to be solely just a unidimensional good bad evaluation? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

What the utility of the components is that it tells us how we might go about changing our attitudes. So, if I think something's good or bad, it's like, how do I change that? It says well, you can try to change somebody's emotions. Maybe you'll expose them to some bad tasting ice cream so they would go, “Ew, yuck!” And so, I would think that ice cream is disgusting the next time I see ice cream. Or, what's most common in persuasion, is we try to change your beliefs. So, you think you like ice cream and you're focused mostly on the fact that it's tasty, but then I try to explain to you it's really high in calories or fat content and it might not be that good for your health. If I could change that belief, then I might be able to change your overall evaluation. Finally, I might be able to change your behavior, so I might give you some ice cream, and so you'll try to eat it and then you'll discover that it tastes good by personal experience. So that's the key, is that it tells me if that's what an attitude is built on. That's what I need to influence to try to change that overall attitude. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

How would you persuade someone who bases their attitude more on emotions or bases their attitude more on belief? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

With emotions the most common technique people have tried to use is called classical conditioning. So that means I try to maybe associate ice cream with something else that makes you feel good. So in a commercial, I might try to associate ice cream with some really attractive people who eat it and just looking at those attractive people makes you feel good. Or, maybe I have some positive and very uplifting music playing while people are eating ice cream. And then if I run that commercial enough over time, you may not even realize it, but you start to feel good just when you see ice cream. It's really based on the attractive people that you saw or the positive music that you experienced, and so I've influenced your emotions directly and associated them with ice cream. So that's an emotional way to do it. In other cases, people try to use other emotions like fear. I try to scare you.

If I want to make you have a negative attitude towards something, I make you get angry about it.

 And so those are all ways that really try to target emotions as a way of influencing the evaluation. Beliefs, the typical approach is to give you information, right? So, if I want to convince you that it's not healthy, I have to explain why it's not healthy and give you information and research and I tell you about it. In that way it's a much more cognitive way, not an emotional way, but I could influence what your attitude is that way too. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

How do we sort our existing attitudes? What is the metacognitive model? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Well, the most general thing about sorting attitudes is into things that are good or bad, right? So that's the most fundamental categorization scheme that we use. But what the metacognitive model adds is it says that good-bad dimension, although it's the defining feature of an attitude and it's the most important thing in understanding attitudes, there are other aspects of attitudes that matter too. And that gets into what the metacognitive model focuses on, and that's the certainty with which I hold my attitudes, or how confident I am that the attitude is correct. So, in the field certainty is considered a variable related to the strength of the attitude, and so attitude strength refers to anything that makes that attitude more consequential. So, let's say you and I both say we like ice cream. On a 10 point scale, we both rated as +9. You would think both of us are going to go eat ice cream, right? Because we're both +9s. But if I asked you, “Are you sure you like ice cream?” And you go “Well, I've only had it once. I'm not that sure, but I think I like it.” And were both still rated as +9, whereas I say, “Oh, I'm absolutely positive. I'm sure. I'm confident that I like ice cream.” I'm going to be more likely to act on that +9 than you are. So, knowing not just that we're both +9s, which makes us look very similar, to knowing that I'm more certain of that attitude — I'm more confident in it than you are — allows me to predict that I'm more likely to act on that attitude than is someone else. So, what the metacognitive model tries to do in thinking about attitudes is it says not only is an attitude object like ice cream associated with feeling good or bad about it, but there's also an additional step that people sometimes consider, and that's how certain they are in that attitude. And so, if we consider that second categorization scheme or that second way of thinking about our attitude— am I certain or not in it — that will help us understand when the attitude will be consequential. It also says that that's an important thing for understanding attitude change.  

So earlier we talked about trying to change your overall evaluation of the attitude. If you like it, I might try to convince you that you shouldn't like it or, if you think it's good, I might try to convince you that it's bad.

Another way, instead of attacking the attitude directly, maybe a first step in getting you to change your attitude is to make you have some doubt in that positivity. 

So maybe I don't get you to move off the +9 to a + 8, but I get you to move from “I'm sure +9 is the right thing” to “Well, I'm not so sure, I'm open.” And that opens you up to consider other information. So, it might be a first step in getting you to change your overall evaluation. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Can you describe the basics of the Elaboration Likelihood Model? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Ah, OK, that's a big one. So, the Elaboration Likelihood Model, at its core, says that there are kind of two ways to go about changing somebody's attitude. One is a very thoughtful way, or when people are motivated and able to think about something and the other is a not so thoughtful way. So, for example, earlier we talked about classical conditioning. If I just merely try to associate emotion with your attitude, you might not be thinking about that very much, so that's a mere association process.  

Right, so emotional input is sometimes a way to induce attitude change without much thinking. But any variable could work by a non-thoughtful or a thoughtful way. I'll give you an example. Let's take associating a product with an attractive source. Most people might think, “Oh, that's sort of the simple non-thoughtful way of doing it, I just have this mere association. The emotion attaches, and that could well be what's happening.” However, an attractive source might do something else. It might make you decide. “Oh, I'm really interested in that product now because attractive and popular people use it, and so it might make me more interested in what the person has to say”. And so, I'll think about the information more, and so in that instance an attractive source is getting me to think more about the information. That would be a highly thoughtful way of changing my attitude. So, one of the things the Elaboration Likelihood Model does at its core is to say variables can affect attitude change by a non-thoughtful way, like mere association, or by a thoughtful way. But the second thing it does is it says, “Why do we care whether a variable works by getting you to think or not think?” And it says, “Well, it matters because thoughtful attitudes result in more consequential attitudes.” So, let's say both of us were influenced by an attractive source, but I was influenced just because of the mere association. I like attractive sources, so whatever the attractive source says, I'm going to go along with. But you said, “Oh I'm very interested in why that attractive source has the position.” And so, you think carefully through all of the reasons the attractive source is giving. So, we both might change our attitudes going toward the attractive source, but one difference between our attitude change is that your attitude change will be more consequential, so you're more likely to act on that attitude than I would be.

 

Timur Begaliyev: 

What factors will determine if we are motivated to process the message? 


Dr. Richard Petty:  

The most important thing that determines whether or not we process a message would be how relevant it is to me personally. In one of our very earliest studies on persuasion, we gave people a particular message about instituting comprehensive exams for undergraduates either at their university or some other university was proposing the very same policy. And so, in one case the message was very personally relevant, and in the other case it wasn't very relevant at all. What we found was, that when it was their own university, the students really paid very careful attention to the reasons the person was advocating it. So, when the arguments were good, they were all in favor of this new policy. When the arguments were not so good, they were not in favor of the policy. But when the very same message was given to them and it advocated doing this at some other university, then they didn't care so much about the arguments because they weren't thinking about it very carefully because it didn't affect them as you might imagine. But they were influenced by things like how attractive the source was or how many arguments were given, regardless of whether they were a strong or weak argument. So that sort of says, "Wow, the more relevant it is to me, the more I'm likely to think carefully about it and then form an attitude in which I will have a lot of confidence.” That’s one that affects your motivation to think, how personally relevant it is. Other things affect how much you think. But there are things that might affect how able you are to think, right? Sometimes if the speaker talks too fast, you're just not able to process the arguments very carefully. Or if there are distractions in the environment, you're not able to think as carefully. So sometimes, especially in advertising, the way they try to get you to think about it more is to present the message multiple times. So, presenting it three times instead of just one time. And as we know, advertising just keeps repeating and repeating and repeating and hoping that at some point you'll think about it, but of course, at some point tedium sets in. And then I just get very bored with the whole thing and then I shut it down and I stop thinking. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

But too much repetition can cause a boomerang effect, is that right? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

That's right. If I think about it, I just get it — ‘it’ is called reactance! Maybe at some point I go, “Oh, my God, enough already! You're really trying to influence me!” Whenever you think someone's trying to manipulate you or influence you, that's when your resistance comes in and I start to counter-argue the message because none of us like to think that we are easily influenced. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Right. I remember I was reading this study when jurors were told to disregard evidence. If they were just told to disregard evidence because it was a legal loophole, then they wouldn't disregard the evidence. But if they were told a specific answer to why the evidence was inadmissible, like the recording was jumbled or the recording could have been edited, then they would disregard the evidence.

 

Dr. Richard Petty: 

And yeah, so that relates to the reason someone is trying to persuade you. So, if you think someone's trying to persuade you because of their own vested interest in something, then we really resist it. But if you think it's in my interest to get at the truth, like in the jury case, then they might still consider it even though they're not supposed to because they think it helps them get at the truth.

 

Timur Begaliyev: 

From my reading, I saw that trust has been differently operationalized in different fields. So, in healthcare, some operationalizations of trust include expertise. What does trust actually constitute in the field of attitudes in social psychology? Can the elements that constitute trust be situational? Are they different, let's say, in a doctor's office or an advertisement? Or do you think the elements that constitute trust would be universal across all fields? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Yeah, it's interesting that you mentioned that in some fields trust is thought to be part of expertise. In social psychology — and persuasion research in general — a big distinction is usually made between expertise and trustworthiness. Expertise has to do with “Does the speaker know the truth?” An expert knows what the truth is, but trustworthiness has to do with whether or not a person will tell you the truth. Are they willing to tell you the truth? So, someone might know the truth, but they're going to lie to me because of their own vested interest. Both expertise and truth go under the more general label of credibility. So, you could say a source is really credible if they are both expert and trustworthy — so they know the truth and they're going to tell it to me. If they're missing one or the other, not good. So, they might be perfectly willing to tell me the truth, but if they don't know the truth, then I can't rely on them! And if they know the truth, but they're not willing to tell it to me, then I can't. Social psychologists, going back to the earliest persuasion research going back to World War 2, have long-distinguished expertise and trustworthiness. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Can you rank the value that people put in trust or expertise, or are they both equally necessary to credibility? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

I think that it’d be hard to rank them — they're both important. You could have all the expertise in the world, but if I don't trust you to tell me and share your expertise with me, I can't go along with you. And if I can have the greatest trust in the world that you would tell me the truth, but if I think you don't know anything about this, then I can't go along. So, they really are the two pillars of credibility. You need both. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

How can trust in a source be increased? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

There's a lot of research on trust and what makes people trust others. The research ranges from, you know, we have in mind a particular trustworthy face, so some people look trustworthy, and some people don't. That's a very simplistic and automatic way in which we judge trustworthiness.

But one of the most powerful ways that has been found is trying to see whether or not the person is arguing for their own best interest or against it.

As an example, let's say you are watching a person on television talk about a bank and it's the president of the First National Bank. And this president says, “If it were me, I would put my money in some other bank, not mine.” That is so unexpected and so against the bank’s best interest that you think that's really going to be popular. In the US for example, if a Republican says something positive about a Democrat, those being the two major parties in the US, it has much more credibility than if a Republican says something nice about a Republican because you just expect them to do that, you don't have to assess it in any way further because it's just as consistent with their interest. So, when we're judging a person's credibility and how much we should trust them, if they say exactly what we expect them to say, which is in their own interest, it doesn't add anything to their trustworthiness. But if they say something that seems to be against their own interest or what we expected, then we think “Wow, they must only be doing that because the truth is so powerful and so evident that they want to share it with me.” That may be the most salient way people have been doing things is, say, something unexpected against your interest and that will enhance your trustworthiness. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

That reminds me. I think the person who's supposed to inherit Baskin Robbins became a vegan, and I think he spoke out against ice cream and dairy.

 

Dr. Richard Petty: 

Yeah. There you go. So, if you're standing to gain by having people eat dairy and you go, “Don't do it,” because of my other belief, they go “Wow, that belief must be so powerful that it counteracts their vested interest.” 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Can you imagine any way to increase trust in a healthcare setting? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Yeah. So probably with doctors, you know, one of the things people worry about doctors is, if they're recommending some sort of medication, do they have a vested interest in it? And so there was, like all this, you know, vaccine conspiracy theories that people were trying to undermine trust in vaccines by saying, “Oh, the companies are just doing this so they can make a lot of profit. They don't really work” and all that kind of stuff. That's a powerful kind of argument because it fits with, “Oh yeah, I shouldn't trust somebody if it's in their vested interest.” And so, it's difficult for companies like Pfizer to recommend taking a vaccine and be considered trustworthy because they do stand to profit if a lot of people take the vaccine. So, if someone was previously an anti-vaxxer or otherwise skeptical and now says “I've looked at the evidence now and now I see the vaccines work”, that's the kind of message that can really help change minds because the person doesn't have a vested interest in doing it. Or, probably in that case, the family physician doesn't gain directly by you taking the vaccine. And so, they would be more trustworthy than Pfizer or Moderna or one of the companies that makes it. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Yeah, I think that's interesting that I was reading a study that people have more trust in their primary care physician rather than their trust in doctors as a general domain. 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Yeah, that is a really fascinating thing, which is similar to in the US people say they hate politicians. They just hate them. “Politicians are untrustworthy”. Like, well, what do you think of your Congress person like? “Oh, that person, that person's good.” And so, there is this kind of thing where we can lambaste group as a whole as being problematic, but of course we make exception for the person we know and we have seen. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Why do you think that happens? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Familiarity, I think, goes a long way toward it. We tend to distrust the unfamiliar. Congress people in general, we don't know a bunch of them. But we do know ours. And the second thing is that when you have a category, it's often the worst people who come to mind first. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Ah, OK. Bad is stronger than good right? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Yeah, just very salient, top of mind. And it's like, oh yeah, here's an example of a politician, and you think of some terrible one. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

When I read your 1996 book Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches, I saw that you described more models of persuasion there than your recent chapter in Advanced Social Psychology (2019). What theories do you think are still relevant? Have any faded into the backlight 20 years after your first 1996 book? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Yeah, I think all of the theories we mentioned in the 1996 book are still relevant and that they can help predict and understand how people's attitude changes. But some of them continue to be popular and others have kind of faded in popularity. So, an example of one that's kind of faded in popularity that was big when we wrote the book initially is Social Judgment theory. It has a lot of interesting features like the whole notion that people have not just a particular attitude, but a latitude of acceptance — a range around the attitude that they consider acceptable. And so, I think it still has a lot of relevance today. Another one is Perspective theory, which is hard to find that theory being used. I don't see it being cited very much, but there is research that's very relevant to it and although they don't call it Perspective theory, they're using some of the very same ideas. One example of that is something called the Shifting Standards model to try to understand stereotyping and prejudice, which is a great theory, but it's based initially on Perspective theory. So there are various theories that people may not realize how useful they are today and so don't use them. Maybe they'll make a comeback, like Social Judgment theory, and then other theories like Perspective theory, that are kind of being used but people may not realize that's sort of the origin of where it came from. Other theories like Balance theory, which used to be very popular, is an example of a Cognitive Consistency theory. And so, with balance theory, a lot of the ideas of balance theory have just been subsumed under a more pervasive theory — Cognitive Dissonance theory. All Consistency theories often are talked about as producing dissonance as opposed to imbalance. And there was another theory way back then called Congruity theory, which also was a Consistency theory. And they've all kind of been lumped together under Cognitive Dissonance theory, which had the most research on it and so forth. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

What do you think about the Theory of Reasoned Action? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Theory of Reasoned Action is still generating a lot of research. Icek Ajzen modified it to the ‘Theory of Planned Behavior’ instead of ‘Reasoned Action’. The essence of the theory is the same, but they added another variable about how much control people think they have over their behavior. So, then if you looked up Theory of Reasoned Action you might not see it as much, but that's a good example of it's kind of there still but under a new name because there have been some modifications to it but still very, very valuable. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Do you know if private research on attitudes and persuasions makes up a significant amount of the field? 

 

Dr. Richard Petty: 

I get the sense that there's a ton of private companies, right?

Every advertising company does research, pretest their ads often, and so forth. That research often doesn't come back and influence theory because often they might say the test is as simple as “Should we book this spokesperson or should we hire that spokesperson?” 

And they will test two ads with different celebrities, and they go, “Oh, this celebrity works best.” And so, they'll decide to hire that person and run that ad. But they have no idea why that celebrity was effective, right? And they may not care because to them it's just good to know that it's effective. And so, although there's a lot of research, it often doesn't come back and help inform the basic theories that psychologists put forward to understand persuasion. Of course, as you mentioned, most of the research is proprietary, so they don't even tell anybody what they found and so it would be hard to go back. I just know about it because, you know, sometimes they try to consult and get your opinions, but often sometimes former students of mine go and work for such companies and then I learn a little bit about what they're doing. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

One of my favorite findings in the general psychological literature was back-channeling, which is influencing a conversation by interjecting by saying “Good” or like, nodding and so forth. What is your favorite finding that is applicable to day-to-day persuasion? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Yeah, it's hard to think about your favorite finding of all time because your thoughts tend to be consumed by what you've done most recently as being a favorite. So I'll tell you about one of my — I can't say it's my favorite of all time — but certainly a favorite recently is the work we're doing on what's called one versus two-sided messages. And so, on a one-sided message, which is the typical message, you just say how good my candidate is, or how good the defendant is, or how good my product is, right? So, you just give a one-sided message. A two-sided message also provides some good stuff on the other side. So, you not only say how good, let's say I'm advocating for the Democratic candidate, me saying how great the Democratic candidate is would be a one-sided message, but a two-sided message would also say, “Well, there are some good things about the Republican candidate too, but primarily I favor the Democrats.” So, I do give a little acknowledgment to the other side. “Coke is fantastic, but Pepsi has some, you know, good things going for it too.”

And what's really interesting in some of the research we've been doing lately is that those two-sided messages are particularly powerful and work well for people who have the strongest attitudes.

So to the people who, you know, love Pepsi the most if you give a little pro-Pepsi information, if I'm trying to advocate for Coke or if they're the most confident people who support the Democratic candidate and I want them to vote Republican, if I say one or two little positive things about the Democratic candidate people, really appreciate someone acknowledging their side. And so, maybe this is because our society has become so polarized and we expect people on the other side to just, you know, think we're stupid and not perceive anything that we believe to be correct, just the slightest little acknowledgment to their side really opens them up to your side. And that was surprising to me because most of the time people think “Oh, you can't give a two-sided message. You'll just confuse people. The strongest message is always going to be just present your side.” You know, “If you want people to wear masks during COVID, don't say there are bad things about mask wearing. Just say how great mask wearing is. It prevents germs from being affected.” But we found that you know, of course you want to give the positive things about mask-wearing, but if you do a little acknowledgement like, “Yeah, we understand it's uncomfortable,” which is what some people say, and “We understand they're not 100% effective,” and so you kind of give a little acknowledgment to the other side. You get people who are anti-mask wearers to acknowledge, you know, “Maybe I will try a mask,” just because they really appreciate you giving some validity to what they think. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Going back to what we were talking about Cognitive Dissonance theory, I wonder if acknowledging that vaccines might not be 100% effective as a bad side then people who have a bad attitude of vaccines that they might incorporate this information to think that vaccines are bad because they're not effective,  instead of if they don't have this information, they might have dissonance and think that vaccines might be bad because they're actually unhealthy, or maybe something that's much worse than just being ineffective. 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Yeah, so you allow them to, and I think you also seem more credible when you sort of present both sides to people. But I hadn't thought about your interesting idea that they might have even a more negative thing, and so by acknowledging a little negativity they can abandon their extreme negative thing. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Thank you very much Dr. Petty for coming on! Is there anywhere that students can look to find out more about you? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

The website (https://richardepetty.com/) is probably the best place that has up-to-date information, like what we've published recently and what we're working on. So that'd be a good place for people to go. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

I'll put your website in the description. If you want someone to remember three points, three important points from this podcast, what would they be? 


Dr. Richard Petty: 

Of the things we've mentioned, maybe the first thing is the two routes to persuasion: that there's thoughtful and non-thoughtful ways and thoughtful is better because it produces stronger attitudes. The second thing is attitude strength. We don't want to know just what the attitude is, whether you think something is good or bad, but also how strong that attitude is, meaning how confident you are in that attitude is also important to know. So, people should think “Let's go beyond the attitude itself and think about the confidence with which people hold their attitude.” And then maybe a third thing, which we haven't really discussed yet, but just get people to think about. Is that as I think about, you know, my whole career and as long as I've been studying persuasion, we're in a kind of a unique time period right now where there are some reasons to think persuasion is more difficult than it has ever been. And it's more difficult because it used to be everybody would get the same information. Whereas now, with social media and tailoring things to people, people are getting messages mostly that reinforce what they already believe. So, people can become more confident and certain of their existing attitudes. And of course, that makes it much more difficult to change. And so that's the downside of the current environment. The positive side is that for social media companies and so forth, they know a lot about us as people. Unfortunately, that's, you know, privacy issues. But because they know a lot about us, they can try to push our buttons to change us because they know exactly what kinds of information we would find appealing and so they can do much more personalized persuasion as opposed to a long time ago, where there was just mass media persuasion, and everybody got the same message. Now we can target messages to particular people in ways that might be more effective to them. So that's sort of the two sides of the environment we live in. Persuasion is more difficult in some ways, but it's also easier to target people than others. 


Timur Begaliyev: 

Right. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me, Dr. Petty! And that's it for this week of Sci-Section, make sure to check our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews. 


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